ATLANTA (AP) - Atlanta drivers can resume their commutes on a heavily used interstate by early next week at the latest, Georgia's governor and state transportation officials announced Wednesday, about six weeks since a bridge on the highway collapsed because of a large fire.
The officials anticipate the bridge will be open by Monday morning's rush hour, Gov. Nathan Deal said.
The stretch of roadway typically used by about 250,000 vehicles each day has been shut down since March 30, when a blaze beneath the bridge burned so hot that it caused the overpass of steel and concrete to collapse. Atlanta commuters already frustrated with gridlock were forced onto congested alternate routes or transit systems. Officials urged employers to allow employees to work from home or change their schedules as state and private construction crews worked round-the-clock shifts every day since the collapse.
"I am pleasantly surprised by the short time frame and we all should be," Deal said. "It is a testament to the dedication of a lot of people."
State transportation officials said Interstate 85 may reopen as soon as this weekend, dependent on final tasks and the weather. Crews still have to install joints between the bridge's beams, finish pouring concrete barriers along the highway, install electrical work and clean up construction debris before reopening the bridge. Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said inspectors have been on the site each day to ensure that the speedy bridge reconstruction, involving 700 feet (210 meters) of roadway, was completed safely. He said inspectors also completed checks of the design, manufacture and placement of the bridge materials.
"All the testing has been done," McMurry said of the $16.6 million rebuild. "It is safe and it is a quality product."
Officials initially estimated that the stretch of highway would open by mid-June, but offered a multimillion-dollar incentive to the project contractor, C.W. Matthews. The contractor will receive the full $3.1 million incentive for meeting contract deadlines early, said Department of Transportation spokeswoman Natalie Dale.
Most of the funding to rebuild the bridge comes from the federal government. McMurry said the state still is pursuing financial help for transit systems, which increased service to help commuters get around in a metro area known for its dependence on highways and the accompanying gridlock.
A homeless man named Basil Eleby is accused of setting a fire beneath the bridge, which ignited fiber-optic cables on wooden spools that were being stored there. Eleby has been charged with arson and criminal damage to property.
His attorneys have said he is being used as a scapegoat to divert attention from the material stored under the bridge by the Department of Transportation.